Flower-Free Five Point Calvinism image

Flower-Free Five Point Calvinism

Giving last week's THINK conference the title, “Is Calvinism Incoherent?” might have been expected to produce a rather binary response of either “Yes” or “No”. Almost inevitably though, a more “shades of grey” picture emerged. Helpfully, our keynote speaker, Mike Ovey, pointed out that no human has entirely coherent thought, so it would be unfair to expect Calvinism to be without its anomalies. However, much of the debate focussed on the coherence or otherwise of the TULIP system, and in particular on the “L” of limited atonement.

Andrew had asked me to be on a panel at THINK to discuss some of the issues raised. Being reluctant to appear completely ignorant I did what any sensible person would do and brushed up on my reading before the event. One of the things that stood out for me in a fresh way as I did so was the relative novelty of TULIP as the defining way to express Calvinism. In fact, this device only seems to have appeared in the early years of the twentieth century, and while easily memorable is of limited use in explaining Reformed theology. Yet so ingrained has the TULIP become that, for most people, it is Calvinism. As Andrew has previously expressed it on this blog, “The five points of Calvinism refer to the Canons of Dordt, which are the decisions of the Synod of Dordrecht on the five disputed points of doctrine in the Netherlands in 1618-19. The latter are usually known by the acronym ‘TULIP’.” However, as Michael Horton notes, “It’s always better to read a confession than to reduce it to a clever device.”1

It is a real problem that so much of the debate about the coherence or otherwise of Calvinism has been reduced to a defence of, or attack upon, the TULIP. If we could forget TULIP and deal with what the Canons of Dordt actually say, and why they say it in response to the Articles of Remonstrance, we might make rather more progress. (If you have stuck with me this far you are probably interested enough to do some further reading, in which case I would strongly recommend Ten Myths About Calvinism by Kenneth Stewart which very clearly demonstrates the historical novelty and theological limitations of TULIP.)

As an example, and because it is the main bone of contention, let’s take a closer look at that pesky “L”.

My observation (and my personal wrestling over the years) has been with the apparent problem posed for preaching if the atonement really is limited. “How,” goes the question, “Can I possibly say, ‘God loves you, Jesus died for you, respond to him!’ if in fact I have no way of knowing whether Jesus actually did die for my hearers?” This is why many end up as “4-point Calvinists” or Amyraldians, to use the technical term. (And on this blog we should be able to use the technical term!) According to Amyraldianism Christ died for all, but intercedes only for the elect. This sounds much more palatable that limited atonement. However, it still leaves us with a problem. As Carl Trueman notes,

The claim is that Amyraldian views of atonement allow the evangelist or the pastor to say to the people in an unequivocal way that then undergirds both evangelism and assurance, “Christ died for you!” Anyone who understands the Amyraldian scheme, however, is not going to be impressed by such an answer; what they will really want to know is whether Christ is interceding for them. The problem of limitation has simply been shifted from Calvary to the right hand of God the Father.2

Spot on.

So, if 4-point Calvinism won’t really do, where can we turn? Well, to the original documents of course!

The Articles of Remonstrance have this to say about the extent of the atonement:

That, agreeably thereto, Jesus Christ, the Saviour of the world, died for all men and for every man, so that he has obtained for them all, by his death on the cross, redemption, and the forgiveness of sins; yet that no one actually enjoys this forgiveness of sins, except the believer.

I guess 4-Pointers, like Andrew, find themselves “wholly in agreement” with this article. So what is the response of the Canons of Dordt? Well, among other things it says the following,

This death of God’s Son is the only and entirely complete sacrifice and satisfaction for sins; it is of infinite value and worth, more than sufficient to atone for the sins of the whole world.

(Don’t just skip over that sentence!)

Moreover, it is the promise of the gospel that whoever believes in Christ crucified shall not perish but have eternal life. This promise, together with the command to repent and believe, ought to be announced and declared without differentiation or discrimination to all nations and people, to whom God in his good pleasure sends the gospel.

However, that many who have been called through the gospel do not repent or believe in Christ but perish in unbelief is not because the sacrifice of Christ offered on the cross is deficient or insufficient, but because they themselves are at fault.

But all who genuinely believe and are delivered and saved by Christ’s death from their sins and from destruction receive this favor solely from God’s grace – which he owes to no one – given to them in Christ from eternity.

What’s not to like about that? It is every bit as delicious, and winsome, and worship-generating as the second Article of Remonstrance. In my estimation, it is more so.

What Dordt then goes onto reject, and from which our very inadequate “L” is derived, is the teaching that,

All people have been received into the state of reconciliation and into the grace of the covenant, so that no one on account of original sin is liable to condemnation, or is to be condemned, but that all are free from the guilt of this sin. For this opinion conflicts with Scripture which asserts that we are by nature children of wrath.

Which of course is to deal with the danger of a slide into universalism. The Canons then continue in rejecting those,

Who make use of the distinction between obtaining and applying in order to instill in the unwary and inexperienced the opinion that God, as far as he is concerned, wished to bestow equally upon all people the benefits which are gained by Christ’s death; but that the distinction by which some rather than others come to share in the forgiveness of sins and eternal life depends on their own free choice (which applies itself to the grace offered indiscriminately) but does not depend on the unique gift of mercy which effectively works in them, so that they, rather than others, apply that grace to themselves. For, while pretending to set forth this distinction in an acceptable sense, they attempt to give the people the deadly poison of Pelagianism.

And that is really the nub – that Arminianism by emphasizing the freedom of man over the freedom of God opens the door to Pelagianism. Which serves to remind us that what we are dealing with is the argument between Augustine and Pelagius as much as that between Calvin and Arminius.

So where does this leave us?

Where it leaves me is with a commitment to the five points of Calvinism, but with some reservations towards the TULIP. “Limited atonement” is a clumsy and easily misunderstood term; the second point of the Canons of Dordt is full of grace and wonder!


  • Modern Reformation, Vol 21, No. 1, p. 63.

  • Ibid., p. 61.

← Prev article
Next article →